Strawberries and asparagus are, for me, forever charged with the optimism of a full spring and a long summer that’s bound to arrive at any moment. They grow locally where I grew up in Kent.
I understand the asparagus puritan who likes their stems no other way but in a slick of salty melted butter right now, but I like to try new things. This recipe is basically a soft garlic sauce; good enough to want to sponge up any remainder with bread. There is also cucumber and fresh chilli – a nod to the summer to come.
The strawberries also deserve a clear approach and few things scream summer like a decadent strawberry cream cake.
A word on the rainbow chard and mozzarella: I can’t eat these without thinking of the time I spent as a rookie chef in Sydney. Happy sunburnt days they were. The lemony crème fraîche with melting mozzarella is all ooze and zing, wrapped up in a colourful, earthy package.
Rainbow chard mozzarella
Great as antipasto or a complete dish with a tomato and oregano salad. Serves 4
rainbow chard leaves 8, medium-sized
crème fraîche or thick double cream 8 tsp
lemon 1, zested
sea salt and black pepper
Split the chard down the centre of the stem, from the middle of the leaf. Blanch in boiling salted water for 2 minutes and remove with a slotted spoon. Slice the mozzarella into 16 pieces.
Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Open out a chard leaf and place a slice of mozzarella in the middle. Top with a teaspoon of crème fraîche, and a sprinkle of salt, pepper and lemon zest. Place another piece of cheese on top and wrap the leaf around, tucking the stalks under. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and repeat with the other leaves.
Bake for 8 minutes, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and olive oil. Eat while still warm.
Asparagus, chilli, cucumber, roasted spring garlic and thyme
This sauce is really quite gentle despite the whole garlic, relying solely on the acidity of the yoghurt. As soon as the season permits, I will swap asparagus with fresh tomatoes and grilled peppers. Serves 4
garlic 1 whole head
salt and pepper
thyme 6 fresh sprigs
full-fat yoghurt 150ml
red chillies 4, large
cucumber 1, medium
black olives 50g
green olives 50g
Heat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. Cut the head of garlic in 2, so that the cloves resemble halves of an orange for juicing. Lightly season with salt, lay across 2 of the thyme sprigs, close the garlic back up and wrap in tinfoil. Roast for 50 minutes.
With a stick, or other blender, blitz the garlic cloves, squeezed from the skins, the yoghurt, a pinch of salt and 4 good tbsp of olive oil. This makes the dressing.
Over the medium flame of a gas burner, or in a dry pan on a medium-high heat, blister the skins of the chillies all over. Cover and set aside to steam until they are cool enough to peel. Then split and scoop out and discard the seeds with a teaspoon. Lightly salt the chilli flesh, dress with olive oil and then wash your hands well.
Increase the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Wash the asparagus, trim or snap the hard end off, and cut in half. Peel the cucumber and split in 4 lengthways. Use the point of the knife to remove and discard the seedy part, and cut into chunks. Place the asparagus and cucumber side by side on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and olive oil and bake for 15 minutes. Add the olives halfway through.
On a serving plate, mix the warm vegetables and chillies, and dress with the garlic sauce. Pick over the remaining thyme leaves and season with cracked black pepper.
A simple recipe with so much to give. This is best with a thick fillet of fish. Unlike traditional salt cod, this is seasoned shortly before cooking. Serves 4
cod 800g fillet
fine sea salt 60g
garlic 1 clove
pine nuts 25g
dried chilli 1
basil 2 sprigs
plum tomatoes 2, from a tin
An hour ahead of cooking, sprinkle the cod fillet all over with the salt and sugar and set aside on a tray for 45 minutes. Then wash well, pat dry and place to one side.
Slice the garlic and place in a pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil, the pine nuts and chilli. Fry over a medium heat until the garlic is slightly sticky. Add the fish, basil and torn tomatoes. Add ½ a cup of water, turn to a simmer and cover with a lid.
Baste from time to time as it cooks. Check for doneness at about 10 minutes: it is ready when the cod yields to a fork. Serve with bread.
Strawberry cream cake
You can make the feather-light pan di spagna cake a day ahead. If you want to avoid grappa, use lemon juice on the strawberries instead. Serves 6
butter for the pan
caster sugar 90g
vanilla pod seeds of ½, or ½ tsp vanilla extract
potato flour 45g (or cornflour)
‘00’ flour 45g (pasta flour)
sugar 2 tbsp
grappa 5 tbsp
double cream 500ml
lemon zest of ½
icing sugar for dusting
Heat oven to 160C/gas mark 3. To make the sponge, line and grease a 20cm cake pan. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs with a pinch of salt on a medium-high speed. Once fluffy, add the caster sugar, spoon by spoon, and then the vanilla. Keep on whisking for 15 minutes. This seems like ages, but by the end the eggs will be very thick and stable.
Turn off the whisk and sieve over the flours and gently fold in, until completely incorporated.
Fill the pan and bake for 45 minutes without opening the door. Then turn the oven off and crack the door open and allow the cake to cool in the oven for 15 minutes.
Wash, hull and slice the strawberries thinly. In a bowl, sprinkle them with the 2 tbsp sugar and grappa and stir with a spoon. Set aside for 30 minutes.
Whisk the cream with the lemon zest. Slice the cake in two and drench the bottom half with the juice from the bottom of the strawberry bowl and half of the fruit. Cover with as much cream as seems practical, then add the top of the cake and a dusting of icing sugar.
Serve with the remaining cream and strawberries.
Joe Trivelli is joint head chef at the River Café.
The Observer aims to publish recipes for seafood rated as sustainable by the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide